Classical Education

A Rich Cultural Heritage

The classical model of education has been developed and utilized for over 2,500 years, an approach still common in this country as recently as the early 20th century. Building on the cultural heritage of the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans, a classical education has trained nearly every great leader, scientist, and scholar of Western civilization.

The Purpose of Classical Education

Classical education was used in the Greco-Roman civilization to train young men for leadership. The goal of this education was to cultivate moral and intellectual virtues for self-governance which prepared students to lead others. The ancient Greeks used the term paideia – virtue inculcated by means of the trivium and quadrivium – to summarize their model of training that set as its ideal the development of the complete man. This approach was adapted for use by the church and used throughout the medieval and modern periods in the West.

The Seven Liberal Arts

A classical education is organized around the seven liberal arts, which are divided into two subgroups, the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium is composed of three subjects: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These subjects train students in the use of language which prepares them for the quadrivium: music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy, which today would include physics and natural science. Theology, the study of the knowledge of God, is historically considered the queen of all the sciences. As a classical Christian school, St. Stephen’s Academy believes that a systematic study of the liberal arts informed by biblical truth cultivates a knowledge and love of the Triune God and an understanding of human nature. The glory and honor of God and a love for one’s neighbor are the primary aims of all our academic pursuits.

A Recent Revival

Much of contemporary classical Christian education traces its roots to Dorothy Sayers’ 1949 Oxford speech, now referred to as “The Lost Tools of Learning,” wherein she defined the skills associated with the ancient trivium in terms of three stages of child development: the poll-parrot stage, which corresponds to the inculcation of grammar; the pert stage, corresponding to the use of dialectic and logic; and the poetic stage, which corresponds to the skills of rhetoric.

Classical Christian Education at St. Stephen’s Academy

St. Stephen’s Academy offers an education rooted in the classical and Christian heritage. We offer a liberal arts course of study organized around the trivium and the quadrivium. This approach requires students to comprehend and assimilate challenging material in theology, philosophy, history, literature, science, math, logic, rhetoric, music, and art in order to speak with wisdom and eloquence. By studying the timeless, our students are prepared to be timely, ready to make the eternal verities relevant to the challenges of their generation.

We consider the admonition from Philippians 4:8 to meditate on whatever is noble, just, pure, and lovely to be the organizing principle of our academic program and cultural life. The classical Greek categories of goodness, truth, and beauty are affirmed here by the Apostle Paul and are essential to Christian discipleship. Thinking on these things is not an end in itself but preparation for purposeful action (Philippians 4:9). Therefore, we are confident that a St. Stephen’s education will help our students become noble, happy, and useful as adults, by God’s grace.

The curriculum at St. Stephen’s has a “Great Books” orientation. Students are taught to read and appreciate classic literature from the youngest ages. Because a classic by definition is imbued with beauty, it trains students’ sensibilities to love the lovely. Because a classic holds a mirror up to life, it forces readers to deal with the truth. Because classic literature is a gateway to the past, it liberates us from the bondage of the contemporary. By the time our students graduate they will have read some of the most significant works of the Western Tradition.

We treat the seven liberal arts primarily as subjects, but also find it helpful to use the trivium as categories for the stages of learning. Therefore, while we are a PreK – 12 school, we speak of our Grammar School (PreK-5) and our Logic/Rhetoric School (6-12). We also refer to these as the Lower and Upper Schools, respectively.

The Liberal Arts Applied

The Trivium:

  • Grammar deals with the foundational rules of language. It can also refer to the facts which are basic to any given subject. It is the focus of Kindergarten through 6th grades.
  • Logic is reasoning conducted or assessed according to strict principles of validity. Formal logic trains the students to learn to reason in all areas of study. The tools of logic give students the means to discern how the facts of any subject tie together. Formal logic courses are taught in 7th and 8th grades.
  • Rhetoric is the art of identifying the available means of persuasion. Students are trained in writing, poetry recitation, and public speaking from the time they enter Kindergarten through the 12th grade. Rhetoric courses are taught in 10th and 12th grades. Oratory is taught in the 11th grade.

The Quadrivium:

    • Music receives special emphasis at St. Stephen’s Academy. We are a singing school where you will find us singing the great hymns of the church in morning chapel or assembly and curriculum related songs throughout the day in our classrooms. Formal music instruction is currently offered in K-12.
    • Arithmetic (Mathematics): The mastery of math is not only useful, it also helps students understand how the order and logic of nature reflect God’s eternal attributes. Singapore Math is used in the Grammar School. We have a math program in the Upper School that requires all students to complete Pre-Calculus by the 11th grade, and allows accelerated students to complete Advanced Calculus their senior year.
  • Geometry originally held its own category in the Quadrivium. Geometry is taught in the 8th grade for advanced track students and in the 9th grade for standard track students.

Theology, Queen of the Sciences

St. Stephen’s students are trained to rightly handle the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15) From Kindergarten through 12th grade, students study the whole counsel of God so they might comprehend the loving purposes of God to redeem a people to Himself. The grand story of God’s redemptive plan revealed from Genesis to Revelation forms the foundation for all other learning. Students are taught to understand God’s truth, apply it, and communicate it. The capstone of our Bible and theology coursework is an apologetics class taught by Pastor Nathan Lewis, the senior pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church. St. Stephen’s Academy is a ministry of Evergreen, whose session adheres to the Westminster Confession of Faith as its doctrinal standard.

Lecture by Dr. Leland Ryken, “Why and How We Should Value the Classics”; Veritas Teaching Conference, Newberg, Oregon, August, 2013
Gamble, Richard M., ed. The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What it Means to Be an Educated Human Being. Wilmington: ISI Books. 2010.
Sayers, Dorothy. “The Lost Tools of Learning.”